A religious idea current in the church is that prayer works much like a pair of scales: each prayer request weighs a certain amount, so that the prayer needed must weigh enough to bring the prayer scale to the tipping point and thereby be answered.
So we work to multiply prayers, either by praying more ourselves or enlisting others to join with us. Or, we densify the prayer; we can either pray more intensely1 or we fast.
There is a certain amount of truth in this way of thinking: for big prayers needing big answers, the unified prayers of many are needed. And we have seen the effectiveness of prayer chains, at many levels.
However, there is an important limit to this idea. And that is, no how matter how much or how intense the prayer, we cannot compel the Lord to do what He has decided He will not do. Here is the fundamental theological truth: He is God, and we are not.
Another example of a desire to compel God is the slogan we hear nowadays, “We’re going to bring Jesus back!” This idea seems to stem from the Matthew 24.14 passage, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations (ta ethane), and then the end will come.” The assumption here is that immediately after the last people group has heard the gospel, Jesus will immediately return and rapture the Church away.
According to some projections, the gospel will be brought to the last people group around the year 2030, or possibly even earlier. So the strategy is, Let’s pray and work and take the gospel out there to those groups as quickly as possible, and then Jesus will be compelled to return. And we can get outta here, because the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and we’d rather abandon ship than work on long-term strategies to address all the challenges.
But the text does not say that Jesus will return in the instant after the last group receives the gospel; it says only that at some time after that He will return. In other words, the preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom to every people group is one necessary precondition to His return; but it may well not be the only one. And since every prediction of the timing of the immediate return of Jesus up to now has been wrong, without exception, we should assume that the Father has other conditions for the return that we do not yet understand.
In any case, we must realize that no action on our part obligates the Lord to do anything. He is God, and we are not.
Finally, another way we think that we can obligate God is to serve Him sincerely and sacrificially over a long time. We construct a contract with God; even though the process may not be articulated or even conscious, it is nevertheless very real.
The assumed contract goes something like this: I have served God well, I have sacrificed much, so nothing bad can ever happen to me, or to my loved ones. Or if it does, God will immediately fix it. One symptom that shows we have constructed such a contract is this all-too-common reaction to a personal disaster: “Why me?”
Mary and Martha assumed they had such a contract with Jesus; and that His love for them obligated Him to come immediately and heal their brother Lazarus (John 11). Jesus did indeed love them, and their prayer was not only reasonable but biblical. There was only one problem with their plan: it was not what Jesus had decided to do. He was in fact not obligated to do anything for them; He is God, and we are not.
There’s good news, and bad news. The bad news: if you think you have a contract with God, He didn’t sign it. He doesn’t do contracts; one reason for that is that a contract is an agreement between two more or less equal parties: you have something I want, and I have something you want. We are not anywhere at all equal with God, and are in NO position to sit down at a table with Him and negotiate terms. He is God, and we are not.
The good news: another reason He doesn’t do contracts is because the blessings He wants to give are bigger and better than anything we could have planned (Matthew 19.27-30). To sum up, we are far better off not trying to obligate God to do what we wish; because first, it doesn’t work, and second, His plans for us are so amazing that we cannot even imagine them (I Cor. 2.9). Glory to God in the highest!
1 Praying more intensely is not wrong – unless it involves us thinking we have to convince God to be loving. For example, we often hear prayers like “Save my family member/friend/government official”, or “Bless my nation”. These prayers betray a false understanding of the character of God: He is already loving our relatives, friends, and nations much more than we are, and is working in their lives to the extent that He can and still remain just.
In other words, in His justice He cannot bless selfishness and idolatry. Our prayers would be much more effective if they were directed to pulling down the idols that people are devoting their lives to. We don’t have to convince God to love the people we love; we need to rather be Elijahs whose intercession is preparing the way of the Lord’s actions.